By Felicia Severns
The phrase that gets repeated by our hosts is, ‘It’s as if Saudi had its finger on the pause button…and now they’ve hit fast forward.” The Mattawa (religious police) have no presence, glamourous uncovered women dine alongside groups of men and families on the restaurant terrace, female drivers in Fendi sunglasses and Lexus 4x4s are speeding past men in the fast lane of King Fahd Road.
Riyadh is progressing at a pace greater than anywhere else in Saudi Arabia. From ladies excitedly chatting to us in the elevator to men yelling out of their cars, ‘WELCOME TO SAUDI!!, the message is clear – Saudi Arabia wants us to visit. So…..shall we?
The Middle East has a special place in the heart of Odyssey World. The original founder of the UK based tour operator, Liz Pepperell had a brave vision in the mid 1980’s to create tours into the interior of Oman, just as tourist visas were launched. She used her knowledge and personal contacts in the area to establish a wide and reliable network, on which we still rely on today to service our tailor made tours of Oman.
40 years later, a unique opportunity has opened up to explore Oman’s mysterious neighbour: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia launched its first ever tourist visas in 2019, and whilst restricted by the pandemic over the last 18 months, we are now on the brink of discovering a fascinating new leisure destination – a vast country with a rich history, questionable reputation and intriguing future.
Frequent headlines regularly propel the country into the UK’s mass media spotlight, and it’s clear that there is still a huge lack of knowledge and plenty of misunderstanding about a country that was traditionally known for its warm hospitality, stunning landscapes and trading routes throughout the Middle East.
Odyssey World has been working closely with Saudi Tourism Authority, the Royal Commission of Alula and private ground handlers to create a series of private tour itineraries that can be offered to intrepid travellers curious about the culture. The beautiful marketing brochures show delightful imagery of their recently revealed heritage sights and wide open desert and mountain spaces prime for adventure tourism. And now, receiving an invite from Saudi Tourism to join them on their first ever series of introductory trade tour of the region, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to find out if Saudi Arabia really is ready to welcome the world.
Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 aims to attract 100 million visitors per year by Year 2030, as well as complete their ambitious ‘giga projects’ such as the Maldives-esque Red Sea project and insanely innovative eco-city of NEOM. However, the realisation of these areas and their mass tourism projections are still half a decade away, so the question remains, can Saudi steer its way onto the intrepid travellers’ immediate wish list?
Riyadh, the business capital of Saudi Arabia with a population of 7 million, was always considered to be the more conservative city to the coastal trading route of Jeddah. It is therefore no surprise that the greatest changes can be seen here, with a magnificent National Museum, progressive awe-inspiring modern architecture and Riyadh Seasons – an entertainment spectacular with a series of contemporary events recently headlined by Cuban American rapper, Pitbull. Construction is everywhere and huge gaps exist which will shortly be filled with gleaming skyscrapers, re-wilded parklands, water parks and tourist attractions. City planners and fans of modern architecture would enjoy a stay at the Four Seasons Hotel or a visit to the Skybridge on the 99th floor of the Kingdom Tower for far reaching views of the developing landscape. Already I’m excited about seeing the classic ‘timeline’ video in Year 2035 that will show just how this city has erupted from the dust.
Ending our first afternoon in Riyadh, with a private light show from the rooftop overlooking the original House of Saud at Ad Diriyah Gate, was remarkable. This UNESCO World Heritage Site won’t open to the public until Spring 2022 and few before us have experienced the private tour we enjoyed seeing the vision for this ancient city, where modern entertainment, dining, history and culture are tastefully combined.
If you’ve seen any of the recent tourism press about Saudi Arabia, one couldn’t miss the attention on Alula, the country’s ‘hero destination’, Situated in the north of the country, this desert landscape of geological oddities and beautifully preserved ancient tombs is the signature shot for all current Saudi tourism campaigns.
It truly deserves the attention. Only opened to locals in 2016 and international guests in 2019, the network of tombs was created by the ancient Naboteans, approximately 250 years after the completion of Petra in Jordan, around 100 BC.
The Royal Commission of Alula is charged with restoring and protecting the region with grand plans for luxury wellness resorts, a beautifully restored ‘Old Town; with local crafts, restaurants and trades and unending scope for adventure and cultural tourism. Visiting now will enable you to explore the tombs with minimal crowds, learn stories of the area from the local ‘rawis’ and soak up the mind-blowing expanse of desert and oasis whilst hiking, stargazing, mountain biking, hot air ballooning or enjoying the series of music events planned for Spring 2022. Never before has such a vast treasure of historical significance been uncovered with the weight and budget that Saudi Arabia has to put behind it. Watching this develop is really something to be a part of.
It would be amiss to discuss Saudi Arabia without acknowledging the cultural chasm that exists between a country that was largely closed to outsiders for 50 years and the rest of the world. However, a larger gap appears to now exist from our perceptions of Saudi Arabia and the rapidly changing reality of life in the Kingdom. Most accounts of Saudi come from friends who’ve either visited on business prior to the Covid pandemic, lived as an expat many years ago and most likely never ventured outside Jeddah or Riyadh. The law relaxations introduced by the young progressive Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman since 2018 have had a profound impact on Saudi Nationals and those now able to visit. Allowing women to drive, remove head and face coverings, choose more informal coloured abayas, and work and travel without guardianship permission has had a huge effect. Disbanding the brutal powers of the Mattawa (Vice and Virtue Police) overnight means that locals no longer fear instant punishment for not closing their shops during prayer times, or playing music or driving with a lone female. Police are rarely found around the souqs and shopping malls and those that are greet western dressed tourists with a nod or ‘Welcome to Saudi’. Mosques have been asked to reduce volume on their Call to Prayers so when, after 5 days, we finally heard the melodic uniquely call under the minaret of Al Balad’s Al-Shafi’i Mosque, it served as a pleasing tingly reminder that we were in fact in a strictly Islamic country.
Al Balad (Old Town Jeddah) is a maze of interesting alleyways and wonder. Twilight arrives and the streets come alive with vendors selling fabrics, gold, coffee and spices. Men hunch over a dominoes board or sit on benches to debate. Al Balad is another UNESCO World Heritage site undergoing extensive renovation and serves as a living storybook of the early Islamic period to the progress in place today. As the beautiful coral buildings are restored, more shops and eateries arrive and a community grows, one could see this quaint village developing into a charming meeting place reminiscent of Palma or Dubrovnik. A visit to Jeddah also serves as the gateway to the Red Sea, where coral reefs are teaming with life and a boat marina offers potential for an array of water based activity and adventure.
Surprises, confusion and disappointment still lie in wait and we constantly remind ourselves that this is an emerging nation with roots firmly in Islam and patriarchy. In reality, the landscape is still black and white with most men adorning their traditional crisp white thobe and women in black abaya complete with hijab and face covering niqab. Many men still choose to take a second or third wife and women are mostly banned from many swimming pools and gyms, even in five star hotels in the city. International tourists are seemingly now given a very wide scope, with few official rules to follow and even dress codes very relaxed. Whilst respectful to still dress modestly, covering knees and shoulders, there didn’t appear to be any enforcement other than the sharp stare from a local. Corporal punishment and public executions are still present, speaking derogatorily against the government and Royal Family is not allowed, many western lifestyle choices and LGBTQ rights are still outlawed. But the appearance at least of more tolerance and open mindedness is apparent.
As tourism is still in it’s infancy in Saudi Arabia, there are many creases to iron. Eager to improve employment opportunities among the young population, efforts are underway for internationally inspired hospitality and tourism programmes. Hotel Reception staff must be Saudi, male and female guides are being trained at their UNESCO Sites and tradespeople are incentivised to operate authentic, sustainable businesses. Support exists currently from overseas workers, especially in hospitality, and everyone works very hard to make tourists feel welcome. There are some rough edges and much room for improvement, but in time (and with continued investment), there is great potential to exceed expectations.
With a population of 40 million, and over two thirds of citizens aged under 35, this is a country eager to learn from the outside world. The young Crown Prince’s ambition, need for financial freedom from oil and fossil fuels, search for acceptance among business and foreign investors plus the prevalence of social media has made it impossible to remain closed and will drive Saudi Arabia’s extravagant recreation of a land ripe for cultural, adventure and entertainment tourism. There is no doubt they will try and outshine Dubai in showy displays of technology and architecture, but are much more likely to remain protective of their traditional heritage to create a more authentic and considered tourism destination.
Is it responsible to visit a place with such poor human rights history?
Every industry has a role to play in helping the world turn. We believe the travel industry should not be one steered by politics. Throughout history, governments impose sanctions, forge multi billion pound business deals and dictate which countries collaborate, with little regard to the will of their citizens. Many disparaging things are said and written about the government of Saudi Arabia and its leaders. Odyssey World’s interest, however, is in the people and the raw beauty of Saudi Arabia, not the complex economic and political power plays that make up their public identity. The world develops quickly and our time here is too short to boycott countries whose regimes aren’t in line with our current beliefs and tolerances. However, the potential for Saudi Arabia to contribute to the world in a positive way is great and their land is a very interesting one to explore.
Many of us are fortunately free to decide when and where we travel. If one decides Saudi is not for them, that’s fine, there’s plenty more of the world to see. But ancient historians, scenic photographers, travel pioneers and curious travellers interested in the ongoing development of humankind and understanding the differences and commonality of our global brothers and sisters will be in for a very unique and rewarding experience. The secrets of Saudi Arabia will not be kept hidden for very long and the privilege of visiting such a fascinating country in this current stage is one that doesn’t come along very often.
Odyssey World designs tailor made tours to Saudi Arabia with private drivers and tour guides. A week is ample to get a flavour for the Kingdom, or you can combine your visit with an onward tour to Jordan, Dubai or Oman. 8 night Discover Saudi Arabia Tours with Odyssey World start at £4,680 per person based on 2 people travelling together. https://www.odyssey-world.co.uk/destinations/arabia/saudi-arabia/